26 April 2015

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 2, from Trogen to Jakobsbad

Time: 5.25 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 835 metres
Height loss: 875 metres

Trogen – Bühler – Appenzell - Jakobsbad

A week after the first leg of my cross-country walk, I head back to eastern Switzerland for the second stage. After overnight rain, it is a lovely Sunday morning. The rain has cleared the air, the outline of the mountains is sharp, every element of the relief highlighted by the low-angled early morning sun. Residual ribbons of cloud add to the beauty of the scenery as I travel slowly on the Voralpen-Express (any Swiss train whose name contains the word “express” is guaranteed to be slow) from Luzern to St. Gallen, then on to Trogen where I ended the previous stage. Having woken up early and made the effort to get out of bed, I am ready to start walking at 10:30 despite the three-hour train ride.

It takes a fair bit of road walking to get out of Trogen, and it is half an hour before I am finally on a woodland path that climbs steeply up, winding its way over and around numerous tree roots that have been exposed by erosion. This path soon brings me out onto a lane – yet more asphalt – and in no time at all I have already reached Hohe Buche, the day’s first top at 1130 metres above sea level. This grassy hilltop, complete with a restaurant, gives great views southwards towards the Säntis range, already much closer than when seen from the Kaienspitz during the previous stage of the walk. It will still take a good day’s walking after this one before I am right up close to the mountains though. There are some big cumulus clouds puffing up over the summits: rain and possibly thunderstorms are forecast for this evening, and the first signs of the coming change are already there. 

On the way up to Hohe Buche
For the moment though, the weather is warm and sunny. Continuing southwards, I drop gently downhill along a rounded, grassy ridge. I see no other walkers but plenty of mountain bikers, some huffing and puffing their way uphill, others bracing and braking as they plunge downwards. I pass through a gate where rolling hills are nicely framed between trees, then climb up again to a rounded hilltop, nameless on the map but the day’s highest point at 1160 metres. The view opens up eastwards as well from here, with the most prominent feature being the Hoher Kasten, its square top a clear feature of the skyline.

Typical Appenzell landscape between Hohe Buche and Wissegg
Dropping down more steeply now I pass a couple of isolated houses at Wissegg, where there is also a monumental spreading tree, its branches still completely devoid of leaves. I pass through a herd of cows and carry on down through a grassy meadow where the background perfume of the air leaves no doubt that the same animals were here not long ago. A zigzagging path through trees finally brings me right down into the valley, and to the village of Bühler, grouped around a pretty church tower but otherwise undistinguished. There is a junior football tournament going on as the church clock strikes midday, four tiny teams battling it out on two adjacent pitches while others wait their turn.

At Wissegg
More road walking now, and steep uphill road walking at that. The day has become hot and quite sticky as I slog uphill, climbing back out of the valley into which I descended half an hour previously. A hand-painted signpost informs me that it is 2443 kilometres and 96 days’ walk to Santiago de Compostela… I don’t think I will be doing that. Eventually the lane becomes a grassy path, which climbs prettily up along the edge of a wood, before bringing me out onto another ridge top at the farm of Saul, at an altitude of 1031 metres. I have finally regained all the height lost earlier.

It's a long way to Santiago...
The view is magnificent from here, even though the summits of the Alpstein range have succumbed to the clouds and disappeared. The foreground is a lovely mix of green hills, little copses and hedgerows, and fields where the vivid green of the spring grass is intermingled with bands of yellow dandelions. I find a nice spot just up above the path to sit and have my lunch, not doing any sketching this time but just enjoying a landscape on which the only blot is a line of high-voltage power cables (edited out of the photo below). Occasional walkers pass by, including a woman who I initially think is trying to engage me in conversation, before I realise that she is simply chattering away with herself. 

From this point, it is a long, steady descent down into the next valley and to the little town of Appenzell, the regional capital. Though pretty, this part of the walk is yet again largely on hard surfaces, with only occasional shortcuts to eliminate loops in the lane. It has taken me three hours to reach Appenzell, and once again I realise that my guidebook (which suggests 4 hours 15 minutes as the time needed) must be aimed at a very relaxed kind of hiker. I have not been pushing myself at all, and yet am 25% faster than the indicated time.

View towards the Hoher Kasten, on the way down to Appenzell village
I do not get to see much of Appenzell. Unexpectedly, and somewhat unfortunately, I arrive right in the middle of the Landsgemeinde, an exercise in direct democracy that is held here once a year on the last Sunday in April (a fact which I did not know until Wikipedia told me about it after the walk). It is clearly a big event not only for tourists, but also for the local population. The streets of the village are packed, most of the men are wearing suits or at least smart shirts, while the women are dressed up in posh frocks and hats. Everyone looks very hot and everyone is making good use of the beer stalls that have been set up in the streets. The village’s main square is completely blocked off, accessible only to those who have the right to vote, which obviously does not include me. Officers wearing blue suits and very shiny brass helmets are guarding the entry points to the square, making sure that only locals are allowed to go within the perimeter rope and raise their hands to vote. On a rostrum at one end of the square, below a big tree, a local dignitary or politician is making a speech about the town’s swimming pool, clearly the object of some kind of vote today. It is an interesting tradition to have seen, but it does mean that I do not really get much of a look at the village centre.

Landsgemeinde in Appenzell
I was not sure how far I would walk today; Trogen to Appenzell was always going to be too short a day’s walk. The next stage in my guidebook would take me to Urnäsch, but that would be another three to four hours and probably too much – or at least, it would result in me getting home very late. I opt for a compromise and decide to walk to Jakobsbad, just over halfway to Urnäsch; I will tack the remaining hour and a quarter onto the beginning of the next stage. 

To be honest, I might as well not have bothered, as the two hours’ walk from Appenzell to Jakobsbad is best forgotten. To anyone reading this who is not obsessed with walking every inch of the official route, I would recommend either finding an alternative for this stage, or simply taking the train from Appenzell to Urnäsch. The first twenty minutes’ walking out of Appenzell is beside a very busy main road. The path then rises a bit above the road, but stays very close to it all the way to Gontenbad, which I reach after about three quarters of an hour. There is no view to speak of – the best views are behind me, towards the Hoher Kasten, but even these are marred by the urban foreground.

Beyond Gontenbad, things improve slightly, and here comes the only redeeming feature of this part of the walk. From Gontenbad to Jakobsbad is the Barfussweg, or “Barefoot path”. As its name suggests, this is a modern re-invention of the old tradition whereby people would remove their shoes to cross the grassy fields from one village to the next. I bow to the tradition, remove my shoes and socks and set off along a grassy path which skirts round the edge of a golf course. It’s actually a very pleasant sensation to be walking barefoot in the grass, and the earth of the occasional muddier patches also feels lovely and cool underfoot. Of course I will not be a pretty sight afterwards, but I had planned to wash my feet this month anyway… Along the way I pass several other barefoot walkers, mostly families but also several older people. There are also quite a few cyclists, none of whom are barefoot, nor have they removed the wheels of their bikes. Eventually the ground becomes more gravelly and less pleasant to walk on, and I put my boots back on. I skirt past the village of Gonten, from where a final twenty minutes’ or so walking brings me to Jakobsbad, where there is a railway station and various outdoor activities: a cable-car going up to the Kronberg above, a rope walk activity thing, a nature trail and so on. 

On the train back, just before Urnäsch, there is a view up the valley that leads towards Schwägalp. This will be the next stage of the walk. The official Alpine Panorama route simply follows the river up the valley bottom, but I have identified a more interesting-looking way up the hills on its left side, via Hochalp and the 1520-metre Spicher. It still looks like there is a lot of snow up there though and, with much colder temperatures and more snow forecast over the coming days, I may need to put the next part of my journey on hold for a couple of weeks. 

Tradition respected

19 April 2015

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 1, from Rorschach to Trogen

Time: 4.5 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 1125 metres
Height loss: 700 metres

Rorschach – Heiden – Kaienspitz – Rehetobel - Trogen

The Swiss national walking route No. 3, or “Alpine Panorama Trail”, crosses the country from east to west, from the banks of Lake Constance to the shore of Lake Geneva. It is a predominantly low-level itinerary, rarely going above 1,500 metres, its route designed to give panoramic views over the main Alpine range rather than being right in the middle of it. As such, it is an ideal choice for the start and end of the summer hiking season, when the higher hills are still covered in snow.

I have been interested in the idea of walking the route for several years. Doing it all in one go would hardly be feasible, as completing the 30 stages would mean taking five or six weeks off work. But doing it over a period of time as a series of one, two or three-day walks is very much a possibility, and it will give a theme to my season, much as my tour of Lake Lucerne did three years ago – this is something that I missed having last summer. Never mind if it takes me three years to reach Geneva, I have decided to do it, and to start this weekend. I will not be sticking religiously to the “official” itinerary; I have already done several of the stages as day hikes, and will be looking for alternative routes rather than repeating these.

It’s a long way to Rorschach, meaning a six-thirty breakfast and three hours on various trains. Getting home from the end of today’s stage will be pretty much the same, only without the breakfast. There is a certain madness in spending six hours on trains for a four-hour walk, and of course it would have made more sense to string two or three of these far-from-home eastern stages together. But never mind, I totally accept being slightly batty.

Lake Constance at Rorschach
From the station at Rorschach, I make the short walk to the lakeside, where a brisk, chilly breeze is whipping across from the distant German shore. It is far from warm despite the clear blue sky. The start of the walk is not particularly auspicious: it takes the best part of 45 minutes to break free of Rorschach’s suburban sprawl. Scattered residential areas populate the hillside above the town as I climb steadily uphill, all looking out over the huge, dark-blue lake, a view whose interest is somewhat diminished by the absence of any mountains or even hills on the far bank. I pass under a noisy motorway and continue to climb, across a field then between more houses, finally reaching the end of urban civilisation at Wartensee, where a small castle has been converted into some kind of conference centre. It doesn’t really feel like the start of a thirty-day hiking route.

Now things become more interesting. I climb through forest, soon emerging into a deep-sided valley where I cross and re-cross a tiny, narrow-gauge railway line several times. Spring is doing its stuff after two weeks of warm sunshine: suddenly, almost all the trees are in either leaf or blossom, and the fields are a sea of long, very green grass, dandelions and daisies. Looking eastwards through gaps in the surrounding woodland, the foothills of the Austrian Alps are visible in the middle distance, the first of the Alpine Panorama Trail’s alpine panoramas, albeit a restricted view one. The path is rarely level, constantly going up and down, with a general trend towards upness rather than downness. I suspect that this will be a characteristic of the entire route: these are the foothills of the Alps, and by nature foothills tend to be all humps and bumps, deep valleys and little summits.

Passing the hamlet of Schwendi, which consists of little more than a tiny station and a rustic-looking restaurant, I pass underneath the railway and drop down into another valley, following a lane that twists and turns downhill, passes between two uncharacteristically scruffy farms, then crosses a stream before petering out into a muddy track. A short but killingly steep climb follows, a hundred metres’ height gain in about a third of a kilometre, leaving me well and truly out of breath by the time I reach more level ground. By another farmhouse a car pulls up; a dog jumps out, sees me and starts towards me, barking aggressively… then spots a cow in the next field and, to me relief, decides that chasing the cow will be more fun than chasing me. 

Traditional Appenzeller houses in Heiden
Now my way takes me through the village of Heiden, an affluent-looking place with spotlessly clean streets and numerous big, elegant houses. Here I see the first examples of the Appenzell region’s very typical architecture: red-roofed, mostly white-painted wooden houses, gable-ends facing the street, with often ornately decorated facades and large numbers of very small windows. The architecture will be very much a feature of today’s walk, with many fascinating examples on show.

Now for the climb up to the day’s highest point, the 1122-metre Kaienspitz. A long section of steep, uphill road walking is needed to get out of Heiden; it seems to go on for ever. In fact, an excess of tarmac slightly spoils this first stage of national route No. 3. I hope this will not be typical, but suspect that it might be: the route stays largely at altitudes occupied by villages and farms, so lanes and tracks are likely to be more common than mountain paths. Finally, above the hamlet of Ober Brunnen, a steep staircase leads to open grassland, with ever-wider views opening up in all directions. Only ahead of me is the view still blocked by forest, but that is about to change in a most spectacular fashion.

Heading up towards the Kaienspitz
I climb steeply uphill across the pathless pasture, passing little barns and isolated houses. Behind me, the lake has receded into the far distance, and will soon disappear. I pass through another wooded area, emerging at the foot of the Kaienspitz’s summit slope. And there, suddenly, as I reach the highest point, the southward panorama appears. It really is beautiful: here is the whole of the Alpstein range, still carrying a lot of snow. Dominating the picture is the Säntis, only 2500 metres high but looking for all the world like a giant of the Bernese Oberland or Valais. It has taken me two and three quarter hours to reach the Kaienspitz, I have made good progress and it is lunchtime. This is a popular walking destination, and there is no shortage of sunny benches on which to sit and eat my sandwiches.

And suddenly...

I can see my final destination, the village of Trogen, very close at hand as the crow flies, probably no more than five kilometres. The problem is that between my current location and Trogen lies a deep valley: 450 metres down from here to the valley bottom, then another 250 up its far side. I had better get going. I set off down the south ridge of the Kaienspitz which, I have to say, is a most inappropriate name: the word Spitz suggests something quite sharp and pointed, while the Kaienspitz is more like a flat-topped, grassy mound. After ten minutes, past the first farm on the southern side, I find myself back on tarmac again, and have to follow a minor road all the way down to Rehetobel, almost two kilometres further on. Rehetobel is another pretty village, with several traditional houses and a generally more countrified feel to it than Heiden. 

Not quite identical twins
Leaving the village at its lower end, the way down into the valley becomes ever steeper. A warning sign tells me to beware of a firing range, and that I may die a horrible death if I pass this way “while the bag is flying”. I see no sign of bags, windsocks or anything else that this might refer to, so continue and live to tell the tale. Very steeply downhill now, lower and lower I drop down until I finally reach Chästenloch, right at the bottom of the valley by a river. I am surprised to see a couple of houses in this very isolated and inaccessible place; one of them is derelict but the other is operating as a restaurant and seems to be doing a busy trade. The setting is not unlike Ranft, the hermitage up above Sarnen.

Various modern hostelries in Rehetobel, where they even have the telephone...
Escaping from this valley is even steeper and more tiring than the previous one, before Heiden. The afternoon has become hot and, after a thousand metres of upping and downing already, my legs are heavy. Slowly but surely I climb, until eventually I reach the first houses of Trogen. At the entrance to the village is a sports ground with a magnificently mown football field, complete with terracing… but no goals or pitch markings. Maybe Trogen Wanderers are no longer a going concern, or maybe it’s just the world’s biggest bowling green.

Traditional houses in Trogen
I climb up towards the village centre, passing more magnificent old houses, some of which have an astonishing number of windows… who’d be a window-cleaner in the Appenzellerland? In the centre of the village is the Landsgemeindeplatz, where as recently as 1997, local referendums were decided by show of hands, the entire population gathering in the square to vote. A short walk brings me to the village’s little railway station, and a 20-minute ride on a toytown train back to St. Gallen, from where it’s a little more than two hours to get home. The entire walk has taken me four and a half hours, quite a bit less than the six hours listed in the official guidebook. If this is typical of the timings given, I may be able to combine some of the shorter days.

12 April 2015

From Entlebuch over the Alpiliegg

Time: 4 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 780 metres
Height loss: 780 metres

 Entlebuch – Alpiliegg – Finsterwald – Burggrabe - Entlebuch

 After a sunny but rather chilly end to the long Easter weekend, the return to the office was immediately (and I suppose inevitably) accompanied by soaring temperatures, which have persisted all week and beyond. The central heating has been turned off, and short-sleeved shirts and summer jackets have replaced pullovers and anoraks. A slightly greyer Saturday allows me to get all the routine household stuff out of the way with no regrets about what I am missing, and leaves me free to make the most of what promises to be a perfect Sunday.

I have no great desire to do anything too strenuous, and anyway, there is still too much snow at altitude to envisage going very high. I decide on a fairly gentle-looking walk not too far from home, allowing me time to make the most of the weather and the views; maybe I will even be inspired to do some sketching, so I take paper and pencils along with me.

At half past ten I start from the railway station in Entlebuch, deep in its valley bottom but already at an altitude of 683 metres, leaving me another 600 or so to reach the Alpiliegg, the day’s highest point. The village is in a Sunday-morning slumber, and the sunshine is warm enough for me to discard my fleece from the outset. I walk uphill through the quiet streets until the houses give way to fields, getting a bit of a scare at the very last house when a dog comes shooting out of the garden barking, immediately called back by its owner who also grabs hold of it for good measure.

The path leads up towards a tree-lined ridge
The gradient steepens and I am soon feeling out of breath, not surprisingly given that my only other walk in the last six weeks was mostly flat. I climb up through woods towards a ridge, its skyline topped with a row of tall, slender trees. I cross a lane, beyond which a narrow path heads ever more steeply uphill through more trees, while several hundred metres away to my right at the farmhouse of Scluechtberg, a dog barks aggressively, leaving me in no doubt as to who this territory belongs to. At the point where my path leaves the shelter of the trees some way above the farm, a “Beware of the dog – walkers and bikers please use the path through the woods” sign suggests that there may have been incidents in the past where people have tried to use the more direct track that runs right past the farmhouse.

Wind turbine at Feldmoos
This initial, steepish climb has brought me to Feldmoos, already at 1,017 metres. I am now level with the skyline trees that I saw earlier; they share their hilltop with a no doubt highly beneficial but also rather unsightly wind turbine, huge and white against the blue sky. Two more turbines top adjacent hills, all three of them immobile on this calm Sunday morning. For the first time, I get a view of distant mountains popping up above intervening trees: ahead, the western walls of the Pilatus range, while away to my right, a line of telegraph poles guides the eye perfectly towards the craggy, snow-covered Schafmatt.

A farm track takes me across open fields, then into the fringes of another wooded area. Occasional clearings give picturesque views towards freshly-mown meadows and little farmhouses. The track drops down into a shallow valley and crosses a stream, beyond which a narrower, muddy path branches off to the left. This path leads me steeply down into a deeper, very green valley, where I cross a second stream on a narrow wooden footbridge, nomore than two tree-trunks tied together and a handrail. Another ten minutes and I come to the end of the woods at an isolated farm marked on the map as Lutersarni Neuhaus, the roof of its main building covered in an impressive array of solar panels. There seems to be a party going on inside the house, or possibly preparation for a noisy Sunday lunch with friends; there is the sound of laughter and loud talking in what sounds like Italian, while a hifi system is belting out Arab-influenced rock music. I can imagine it being a perfect place to invite a dozen friends round for a barbecue and a few beers!

Now for the final climb to the Alpiliegg. Beyond the farm, there is no path but the way is obvious, heading straight up an open, grassy pasture towards a clear gap in a line of trees. From here, I continue uphill, as the view to my right becomes ever more impressive. I stop halfway up the slope for twenty minutes and do a quick sketch of the landscape: little do I realise at the time, but this will be sufficient to give me a nicely sunburnt neck and make things very uncomfortable when I put on my work shirt in the morning. 

The Apiliegg is not really a hill with a clearly-determined summit, but rather a long, grassy hump culminating at a modest 1279 metres. The broad, flat centre of the ridge is grassy, lined on either side by trees which somewhat cut off the view. It’s one of those places which I imagine must be quite damp even in dry conditions, judging by the mossy, marshy nature of the grass. Today, with all the winter’s snow and rain still very much present, it is spongy underfoot to say the least. The easiest way to progress without getting very muddy seems to be to try to walk on the sparse, residual patches of snow, and so it is in a very un-straight line that I complete the ascension of my first “summit” of 2015. 

On the Alpiliegg
There is no view from the highest point, so I continue westwards for five minutes, steadily downhill until I reach the saddle between the Alpiliegg and its neighbour, the Schafberg, a green hump that has been prominent in the view for the last hour. The saddle is bare of trees, and here I find a nice spot to stop for lunch. The grass seems to be dry, the view southwards towards the Schimbrig and the Schafmatt is superb; only the sound of traffic on the road below breaks the idyll. One other sound eventually wafts up to me though: from a farm somewhere below comes the faint sound of more Arab-style music. It is not the same farm as before, and it makes me wonder whether the entire population of the valley has just returned from a winter break in Morocco, bringing CDs of the local music back with them and keen to prolong their holiday.

I eat my sandwiches (one ham and Branston pickle, one cheese, salami and mustard) and an apple, then debate whether to attempt a sketch of all the mountains spread out in front of me. It all looks rather complicated, but in the end I go for a simplified version, eliminating all the fields, hedgerows, houses and hamlets in the foreground. A twenty-minute siesta completes my lunch break, by which time I have a thoroughly wet bottom, the grass not being quite as dry as I initially thought! It is time to move on…

From my lunch spot, it is only a short walk down to the village of Finsterwald, passing a house with a weathervane on which the usual cockerel has been replaced by a horse. I cross the main road and continue along a path that first runs by the side of a wood, before plunging into the trees and starting to drop down into a deep, steep valley. There is a surprise in store here: in a green clearing, an old tram has been converted into a shelter, complete with original seats and lamps inside, and a notice stating that there are “16 seated and 15 standing places”. It reminds me of the little bus that I used to take to school in the early 1970s, in which customers were informed by a notice that “THREE standing passengers are allowed in this vehicle at all times”. How many times was I left standing waiting for the next bus because the magic number of THREE had already been reached… There is even a tram-stop beside the tram-shelter, with the name of the place, just like the bus-stops in Lucerne. Only the timetable is missing. A sign explains that this early 20th-century tram was one of the last to run in Lucerne, before the city did away with them in 1961. Donated by the Lucerne transport company, this old blue and white tram has found a new, if rather odd vocation in a most unexpected place.

An unexpected sight in the forest...
My way ahead now runs pleasantly beside a pretty stream, with occasional houses up on the high bank that borders the valley. Then the path re-enters the woods and suddenly, the valley becomes much narrower and darker, almost a ravine. Its sides become steep, and the peaceful stream becomes more agitated, tumbling down little waterfalls between green, mossy boulders. The path itself clings to the valley’s eastern side; narrow, often muddy and covered in a deep bed of dead leaves which give the whole atmosphere a suddenly autumnal feel. This is the Burggrabe, a clearly-marked cleft in the land on the map, but certainly deeper and steeper than I had expected.

At the valley’s lowest point, where two bridges cross a confluence of streams, there is a choice of paths. The most direct way back to Entlebuch simply follows the valley bottom, but there is an alternative, longer route intriguingly marked “Burgweg – Kanalweg” (Castle and Canal route). I had read about an old fortification in my guidebook, but nothing about canals, and wonder what further surprises will be in store for me.

It’s a short but painfully steep climb up to the “castle”, which in fact is an ancient earthwork, now no more than a grassy hump with a slightly artificial shape to it. Whatever fortifications may have crowned the hump in the past have been replaced with a little white chapel (the Burgkapelle), from where there is a splendid view across pastoral farmland to the distant hills.

Behind the chapel, the onward route is marked “Vorsicht, steiler Weg” (Caution, steep path). This is not an exaggeration: the next section is very, very steeply downhill. The route drops down a narrow spur of land between the streams I have been following and the bigger Grosse Entle river. The way has been very well secured with wooden handrails and steps, without which it would be quite a tricky prospect. Even with these man-made alterations in the interest of safety, this path would demand care in wet weather, when it would undoubtedly become very slippery. 

Given the steepness of the terrain, it does not take me long to reach the Grosse Entle, below near-vertical, slabby cliffs where rock-climbers are alternating between scrambling up the slabs and cooling their feet in the river. The riverbed itself is broad and stony, its water shallow, swift-flowing and green. And here is the mysterious canal, the last of the day’s several surprises. A few metres above the river, there is indeed a man-made canal, three or four metres wide and quite shallow; in the Valais, it would be called a “bisse” or a “Suone” depending on the local language. An information board explains that the canal was built in the 1860s, but fails to explain why. Whatever its original purpose was, the path that runs beside it makes for a pleasant end to my walk, as little streamlets run down the yellowish slabs and splish-splash prettily into the canal, sparkling in the afternoon sun. The path soon brings me back to civilisation and to my starting point at Entlebuch station. Sometimes what on paper looks like the simplest, most mundane of walks can throw up all sorts of fascinating little details: this has been one of those.

The canal in the valley of the Grosse Entle


06 April 2015

An Easter walk around the Sarnersee

Time: 4.5 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 425 metres
Height loss: 425 metres

Sarnen – Giswil – Sachseln - Sarnen

I have always thought that Easter is a bit of a waste of time in Switzerland. Four days off work, the anticipation of nice spring walks among the gambolling lambs, Easter bunnies and chocolate eggs… and then let-down as harsh reality sinks in: it’s still winter. This year is no exception: Good Friday is cold and grey, Easter Saturday a complete washout with continuous, heavy rain thrashing against my windows. Sunday looks like it might be a bit better, with an improving forecast, and I decide on a walk around the Sarnersee, coupled with a visit to a landscape painting exhibition in Sachseln, one of the lakeside villages. As soon as I get outside though, I realise that it’s a lot colder than it looked from the warmth of my bedroom. It’s not raining, but flurries of snow and strong winds buffet me as I walk to the station, while a pale sun devoid of any kind of warmth makes occasional, unconvincing attempts to break through the cloud. During the twenty-minute train ride the weather steadily worsens, and by the time I reach Sarnen it’s snowing and the mountains have disappeared into the clouds. I get off the train, shiver, tell myself “This is mad” and get back on the train. I will try again tomorrow.

Easter Monday morning is a complete contrast: blue sky, sun, not a cloud to be seen despite a forecast for more rain in the afternoon. It’s still bitterly cold – more like February than April – but yesterday’s cruel north wind has dropped to a gentle, harmless breeze, and I am well equipped with thermal underwear, two fleeces and gloves. From the train to Sarnen, the snow-plastered Pilatus looks like a great jagged iceberg thrusting up above a black sea of conifers.

Looking southwards down the Sarnersee from Sarnen
The lakeside town of Sarnen looks like a quiet, conventional little place, but one inhabitant at least has decided to try something different… and may be regretting it, if we are to believe the large graffiti “ANAL LOVE HURTS” sprayed three feet high on a very visible wall. As I walk along the river towards the lake, two joggers pass me chatting to each other. One has very dark hair, the other is very blonde; both have identical pony-tails, which bob from side to side in perfect unison as they run. Children are playing football in a well-equipped school playground… one of the nice things about Switzerland is that schools are open, public places, and you often see local kids making the most of the facilities at the weekend. Further along, outside the rowing club, people are preparing long, streamlined boats for what will surely be an extremely cold outing on the lake… one would not want to fall into this water!

I reach the lakeside and get my first view southwards towards its far end, blue-green water leading the eye through reed beds towards the snow-covered peaks of the Bernese Oberland way away beyond the Brünig pass. I really must try to get back there more this coming summer. Up on a hill, a little white church stands out against the blue sky, its bells starting to ring as if in recognition when I take a photo of it. I pass through a residential area where children are playing in the street, their parents no doubt relieved to get rid of them after three days where the weather will have kept them shut up indoors. Leaving the town now, I climb up above the lake along a lane, with an extensive panorama soon opening up ahead of me. The sound of water is everywhere, as all the past days’ rain runs down off the hills, passing under the lane in streams and culverts. A large bird of prey turns slowly in the air only a very short distance away, the light grey underside of its wings clearly visible. It really is a magnificent morning, the change in weather since this time yesterday is absolutely insane. 

Having climbed about 150 metres up above the level of the lake, the lane now keeps a fairly constant altitude, with just minor ups and downs, occasionally passing through avenues of tall trees that come marching down the slope from right to left. There are signs of spring in the hedgerows and the fields, with buds and blossom, but the taller trees are still very much in winter mode, stark, bare and vertical against the clear sky and the mountain backdrop. On the far side of the lake, the knife-edged Arnigrat ridge is still in the full grip of winter and looks like something out of a documentary about the Himalayas, despite its very modest altitude of some 2100 metres. Two people with a tiny, fluffy white dog catch me up; the dog is clearly in charge and is setting the pace for its owners. “Slow down, Tracy, come back” they call in vain as Tracy (now there’s a silly name for a dog!) takes absolutely no notice and comes to wag her tail at me instead. 

There are many pretty old wooden farmhouses dotted along the side of the lane, all with stupendous views, and all with shutters painted the same shade of pale green. Either there is some local bye-law about shutter colour, or someone had a very big bucket of paint and shared it with the neighbours. Now the lane gives way to a forest track, and the views are temporarily blocked off by the trees. Somewhere up to my right, a woodpecker is indulging in some carpentry, blissfully ignorant of the rules about not doing DIY on Sundays and holidays. The track climbs to 640 metres, the highest point of the walk, then leaves the woods at the farm of Holzmatt. A family is talking to friends in the farmyard here, while three cats and three cows observe each other, the former licking themselves, the latter swishing their tails. This animated little scene is set to Swiss German rock music which is coming out of the cowshed – good to know that they have culturally aware cows in Obwalden. 

One of many attractive wooden buildings above the lake
Although it is only 11:45, I stop for lunch when I see a suitable bench, as it looks like there is going to be another lengthy wooded section coming up. It’s a bit too chilly to fully enjoy the view back towards the Stanserhorn, so I only stop for twenty minutes or so before continuing. Just inside the next patch of forest, a woman is standing beside a red car with a long, thin branch in her hands. She seems to be fashioning the branch into a large loop, and I wonder what its purpose might be. Now I start to drop back down towards the lake, for the only time today on a muddy path rather than a lane or a track. Somewhere away to the right, the sound of a stream gets gradually louder, until I eventually come to the bridge that crosses it: I am surprised by how little water it is carrying, but the width of the gully down which it comes is impressive, it must get quite wild after a storm.

I reach the lakeside again at its southern end near the village of Giswil, just by a large and very well-situated camp site. The sunshine has brought people out, the camp site is open and its restaurant looks to be having a busy lunch hour. But looking northwards back up the lake, I can see that the weather is changing quickly. The rain forecast for later in the day seemed hard to take seriously three hours ago, but the sky away to the north is now grey, and already the Stanserhorn and Pilatus are starting to hide their heads in the first clouds.

At the southern end of the lake, looking back towards Sarnen at the far end
The next half hour makes for uninspiring walking, as I have to cross the industrial area at the lake’s southern extremity. The wind is starting to get up again, and I am relieved when I finally leave the main road at the point marked on the map as Zollhus.

The way up the eastern side of the lake is completely different from the one I followed down its western side and, it has to be said, is less interesting. Whereas on the west bank I was high up above the lake, the path on the eastern side runs right along the shore of the lake. This has its advantages: reed beds, the sound of lapping water and quacking ducks are all there in abundance. However, for the whole length of the lake, the path runs close alongside a railway line and it is rather monotonous. No doubt it would be a train-spotter’s paradise, although the variety of trains on show would probably not satisfy the purist; the choice being limited to two small red trains and one slightly less small red train per hour in each direction. Maybe the deteriorating weather is playing its part, so probably are my sore feet, but I definitely enjoy this part of the walk less than the morning’s part.

The weather is changing
At half past two I reach Sachseln, and make a detour away from the lakeside to visit the painting exhibition that was at the origin of today’s hiking idea. The exhibition is a juxtaposition of early 20th-century landscape paintings and modern photographs taken from the same viewpoints. Some of the places do not seem to have changed at all; for others, the contrast between the 1920s and today is striking. The exhibition is interesting but small, just enough to spend half an hour or so before setting out for the final leg of the walk.

This is what happens when you leave a sunny afternoon for half an hour to get a bit of culture...
From Sachseln back to Sarnen is about an hour’s walk, along an increasingly urban lakeside. While I was in the exhibition, the sky has covered completely and the colour of the lake has gone from turquoise blue to dull grey. I reach the end of the lake by another camp site, and complete my walk back through an impressive area given over to sports facilities, all looking very new and surprisingly lavish for such a small town. I can’t help thinking that it would be hard to find a more ideal place than this to bring a young family up to enjoy a healthy, sporty, outdoor life.

I get to the station five minutes before a train is due to leave; perfect timing at the end of a very pleasant day. As always at the end of winter, it’s a delight to be able to just get outside and do “summer walking” again. The forecasters tell me that by the end of the coming week, temperatures will be up in the twenties… this time, it looks like spring may really be about to arrive.

08 March 2015

On snowshoes to the Brisenhaus

Time: 4 hours
Grading: WT2
Height gain: 640 metres
Height loss: 640 metres

Niederrickenbach – Ahorn – Brändlisboden – Brisenhaus - Hüethütte - Ahorn - Niederrickenbach

Just over a month ago, I signed up for a guided snowshoe walk to the Brisenhaus, a Swiss Alpine Club hut situated up above the Engelberg valley, below the imposing, rocky Brisen. So much fresh snow had fallen overnight however that the tour was replaced with a much less demanding itinerary. Determined to nevertheless make it up to the Brisenhaus before the end of the winter, I decided to have another go this weekend, on my own this time and in conditions that could not have been more different.

It has been one of those weekends when you feel that spring has arrived, although in reality you know that it is a false spring and that winter will no doubt be back to punish you for your optimism, probably during the long Easter weekend. On Saturday in Lucerne, the lakeside is crowded with locals making the most of the first sun for what seems like weeks, and tourists practicing the fine art of the selfie. The local supermarkets have put out plants and bags of compost to entice balcony gardeners inside, while some of the more daring restaurant owners have even gone as far as putting tables outside for lunch, and finding plenty of customers willing to take up the challenge despite the definite background chill to the air.

Sunday morning in Niederrickenbach is a total contrast to what it was like at the same time of day on 25th January. Then it was freezing, foggy; the conditions were not far off a whiteout. Today the morning is warm and sunny, the blue of the sky disturbed only by the vapour trails of planes. The snow has gone from the little road that leads up from the cable car station, past the village’s few houses and alongside the walls of the convent. Birds are singing and the church bells are ringing as I follow two ancient-looking nuns up the street, dressed in gloomy black but saying cheerful hellos to everyone they pass. Spring has definitely arrived here.

Just above the village, I leave the road and put my snowshoes on. Although the weather was bad during at least the first half of the week, it must have rained here rather than snowing. The thin layer of residual snow is icy and hard, packed down by all the winter’s ski-tourers and snowshoers. I work my way up in zigzags to the edge of the forest, which a month ago was a fairyland of snow-laden whiteness. Now the branches are bare and sharp against the blue sky, while the snow-covered cliffs of the Brisen make for an impressive horizon, silhouetted as they are against the morning sun.

The Brisen seen from just above Niederrickenbach at the start of the walk
The signposted route takes me gently uphill along the northern side of a valley to the alp chalet of Ahorn, at 1345 metres. So well-trodden is the path that I would be able to do without snowshoes were it not for the fact that the soles of my walking boots have practically no tread left: having done the Pembrokeshire coast path, half the Alpine Pass Route and innumerable day hikes since I bought them in summer 2010, they have now been recycled as only fit for keeping the wet out when snowshoeing! There are plenty of other people all heading in the same direction as me, some on snowshoes, others on skis, one or two with just walking boots.

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Above the chalet at Brändlisboden, 1420m, the gradient becomes steeper as the path turns southwards and begins its final climb up towards the Brisenhaus. I enter an area of light woodland, where the sun’s rays easily penetrate down through the trees to illuminate the undulations of the land. Leafless bushes poke out from the snow as they wait for the sign that they can start sprouting buds, a sign that cannot be too far away. The Brisenhaus appears through a gap in the trees, seemingly very close but still 200 metres and a good half hour’s walk above my current point. As I leave the trees, the ground flattens again. It’s midday, and several groups of people are dotted around this flatter area, sitting on humps of snow or protruding rocks to eat their packed lunches and drink hot tea from flasks. Up ahead, the Brisenhaus is framed by several great wedges of black rock that descend from the ridge above.

At the bottom of the final climb to the Brisenhaus. The hut is just below the "wedge" in the middle of the picture.
It’s a well-known fact that the last hundred metres to a hut are always the steepest, and here is no exception. The trail makes no concessions to zigzags or to finding the path of least resistance, preferring to head more or less straight up the slope until finally, two and a quarter hours after setting out, I reach the Brisenhaus at an altitude of 1753 metres. The place is doing a roaring trade, with piles of skis and snowshoes lined up outside the door. There are appetizing-looking things on sale, but I have brought my own sandwiches along, so I just buy a beer from the friendly woman in the kitchen and take it a few steps away from the crowds to enjoy in the sun. Another four hundred metres higher up is the Glattigrat ridge, from where the views must be spectacular today, but I do not currently have the physical condition to attempt it. Ski-tourers can ne seen dotted all over the slope leading to the ridge, some working their way lowly up in long zigzags, others whooshing effortlessly down in a series of elegant turns. I stay there for an hour, the combination of food, beer and warm sun providing no incentive to do much more than just lie there. Eventually though, a chilly little breeze tells me that it’s time to go back down.

It’s at this point that the battery of my camera decides that it has worked enough for today, and dies very suddenly. I knew I should have charged it before I left home, as the camera has been lying unused for weeks, but it seemed to be showing fully charged yesterday evening. Anyway, there will be no pictures of the descent. Which is a shame, as the way I choose to go down is, especially in its upper part, scenically spectacular, and much more interesting than the way up. It’s also a more demanding itinerary: while the way up was well-trodden almost to excess, this route has clearly been less used, with only a narrow snowshoe track and the usual ski tracks all over the place.

The way down begins by contouring round the head of a ravine, below steep snow slopes that do not look at all reassuring to me. Three skiers are descending about a hundred metres higher up, and I let them get safely out of the way before I take the plunge… I would not want to be caught in a mini-avalanche set off by a skier higher up the slope! The steep passage is very short though, and I soon emerge back into the sun at the chalets of Unterem Stock, well-protected by a shoulder of the mountain that would deflect any avalanches to one side or the other. The way continues to be somewhat intimidating: although the ground I am covering is flat and is a fair distance from the slopes that come down from the ridge, the slopes in question (Zwischen den Stöcken on the map) are very steep and are holding a lot of snow: one would not want to be here if all the snow decided to come down in one go! Further along, an area of sparse woodland offers reassurance: trees do not tend to grow in areas where avalanches come down frequently.

The way down crosses the gentler slopes below the steep ridge in the background (photo taken in the morning before the camera went on strike)
Beyond the wooded area, the tracks turn north and begin to descend, following the bottom of a narrow little valley that runs parallel to the wood’s western edge. The scenery behind me is magnificent, with a whole string of rocky, snow-capped towers against a blue sky backdrop. And gradually, as I distance myself from the cliffs, the sense of potential danger decreases. Two steep sections offer the prospect of exhilarating running descents, but the snow has been warmed by the sun and is a bit too heavy and stodgy to be really ideal. This steep section ends at the little grouping of farm buildings marked on the map as Hüethütte, 1415 metres, outside one of which a man is sunbathing bare-chested… this may be taking the “spring at last” thing just a touch too far!

Below the Hüethütte, I contour round a steep little valley, then drop steeply down along a spur between two streams, crossing a snow-covered wooden footbridge just at the point where they meet. A short climb and here I am back at Ahorn, and back on the route I followed up this morning. The afternoon is warm, people are out strolling, and the few icy patches that still persisted in the village earlier have melted. The cable-car down is full of smelly but happy skiers, and the half-hour wait for the train is just an excuse to half-doze in the sun. It has not been a great winter – we seem to have had lots of sunny Fridays followed by grey weekends – but if today was the end of it, well, it could hardly have ended better.